Though he’s not sure he actually had the authority to do so, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has issued a “Call to the Church” declaring that “trust has been lost in our denomination — and for anything significant to be accomplished we must find ways for that trust to be restored.” He called the need for reform “urgent.”
During his report to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board on Wednesday, PCUSA Moderator Heath Rada said that ” Mid-level judicatories, missions and ministries across the church, individual members, pastors, educators and financial donors, church administrators, staff and elected leaders of the national church share a common feeling that the current understanding of who we are as a denomination — as well as our system of organizational operatives for executing our initiatives — are not working anymore. The need for reform is urgent.”
A Kairos moment for the PCUSA?
From his interactions with people across the denomination, Rada distilled the issues down to four and then highlighted the urgency to act:
- “There is a profound and rapid change in the world around us that has put the Church’s relevance (not just PCUSA but the entire Church) in question in ways we have not seen in our lifetime.
- “Not having a permanent current CEO in our Presbyterian Mission Agency, and having a Stated Clerk who is not going to seek reelection, has offered us a Kairos moment which is unique.
- “We are indeed facing a crises where there is lack of trust across the church. This is manifested in many ways but includes – departing congregations, confused members concerning who we are as the PCUSA, disinterested local sessions who could care less about what is happening in the national church and congregations when it comes to national church initiatives (unless they are controversial) struggling mid-councils, frustrated and anxious staff in our national offices, many of whom are wary and disillusioned, and financial supporters who are seeking other ways than through our denomination to share their money.
- “Our theological institutions, who have provided a foundational element of our denomination historically, are also victims of this unrest and the ‘old models’ of seminary education being handled in the ways of the past by the same deliverers is under scrutiny.
“We must act to remedy some of these matters and we must do so with haste. I hear loudly and clearly that we do not have the luxury of time to discern and debate at length,” Rada said.
A disconnected connectionalism
Rada spoke of a disconnect between what PCUSA members feel is happening at the national, synod and presbytery levels. “On one hand I see our organizational leadership trying to do what we, through our General Assembly, have directed … But many people across the Church see something else. They believe that ‘Louisville’ is out of touch with them and that there is not an effective system in place for us to ‘be the church.'”
He spoke highly of the PCUSA staff, saying that their passion and commitment to service is a gift and strength. He also reiterated the big tent philosophy of the PCUSA as a place for everyone. “We need to rethink what we are asking our leadership to be and do and to develop a system that works for all of us, and where we affirm that God’s house, and Christ’s table, is large enough for all of us who call ourselves Presbyterians to participate as we seek to do the work of the Kingdom.”
Rada said that his “Call to the Church” doesn’t include any answers, “but is more a naming of reality, a speaking of the truth in love, a call to change.”
Is the PCUSA willing, he asked, “to risk the comfort and in some ways the traditions of our past in order to accept our place in a resurrected church?”
Moving out of a repeatedly remodeled house
As a 71-year-old, Rada said those traditions are “very much embedded” in him.
He used the analogy of living in a house that had been added onto several times. To get from one room to another, you had to go outside, walk upstairs, reenter, go downstairs and pass through several other rooms.
“This seems ridiculous,” he said, “but as I have been listening, it seems consistent with what many believe is the current house we live in as a denomination. So we need to move. We need to sort through and decide what to retain and what to give away. We are functioning with a structure and approach that was designed for a church 30 years ago, but is no longer relevant. It is time for us to awaken to the realities of who we are as a denomination in the 21st Century.”
Rada did not make specific suggestions nor did he say if the move he was alluding to should include a physical relocation from The Presbyterian Center in Louisville, KY.
What he did was ask several questions:
- “What might it mean for us to hit the reset button for a new church start?
- “What might it mean for us to practice Sabbath, and engage in a spiritual discipline for the church in order to discern our way?
- “Can we find a way to affirm a theological basis for who we are and who we are to be, one that embraces our uniqueness and our differences, and in that context establish the priorities for the church?
- “And once we settle on priorities, can we implement an organizational network that can help us carry it out?
A major overhaul is not only being called for, Rada said, “it is needed… We must take bold and immediate steps, and for us Presbyterians who love to discern and debate, it is essential that a resolution be found quickly.”
Rada said that the denomination can’t wait for the 2016 General Assembly to appoint a committee to study the issue for two years and bring the 2018 General Assembly a recommendation that would take two more years to implement.
“The people in the pews — as well as the ongoing health of our organization and our staff — says we cannot wait for four years to get this resolved. The need is immediate.”
So the denomination has a polity that says the General Assembly is the official place to implement change, however, the church is saying it cannot wait. Rada said that the polity has become like a prison and he hopes to set the church free to discern in a new way.
Hearing the will of God through PCUSA members
Rada asked and then answered his own question, “Is there any way to move this forward?”
“From my perspective it seems appropriate that the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA)help us on the first stage of this effort.”
COGA is the agency that is in charge of planning and implementing the General Assembly meetings that are held every other year.
Rada said that he has met with member of COGA and “they are already seeking to address this need. They see that they must address it in an organized but urgent way, with essential networking and information gathering from other agencies and bodies of the denomination.”
There is concern in the denomination, he said, that if one agency takes the lead in this, that they make take control to make sure that the outcome serves their own best interests. There “is a general suspicion and unrest with our organization,” Rada said.
“When COGA discussed tackling this issue, they recognized that their position needed to be clear and that any bias or preferred outcome from them should not have any more influence than those of other bodies. I am convinced that they believe this and will utilize objective processes and procedures including resources outside of our denomination who can help us hear the will of God through our membership.”
Suggested next steps for transparent inclusive process
So what steps should the PCUSA take now? Rada suggested several
- “Someone has to take a lead,” he said. “I am asking that the denomination affirm and actively participate in the COGA process which is getting ready to be unveiled and which will undertake the massive task of assessing the church’s will … I am asking that we trust this process unless, as it is implemented, we find reason not to do so.”
- “I ask our church members, local sessions, Middle Governing bodies, advocacy groups, agency boards, institutional members, people who have felt disenfranchised, people from different theological positions and different cultural and racial backgrounds, staff members at the local and national levels, and all others who care about our denomination to participate actively and expeditiously in order that we might gather data which can help our Portland General Assembly next June to make informed and healthy decisions about our future.”
- “I intend to start a series of ‘Moderator Chats’ … I propose that we have scheduled talk back sessions with the moderator and vice moderator, as well as other people in leadership positions in the church, where various groups of our denomination will be able to share visions, ideas and hopes so that we might rebuild trust and move forward.
- “I call on the help of seminaries, presbyteries, church related colleges, camp and conference centers to work together, host, sponsor and participate in regional gatherings with commissioners elected to the 222nd General Assembly as well as other interested Presbyterians, concerning ways to prioritize our work and how to begin to develop our priorities as well as begin a process to develop an organizational system for the reformed PCUSA which is both feasible and adequate. Such a plan should be coordinated with COGA as they unveil their plans for study and feedback.”
- “I ask that we enlist the assistance of our communications departments in each agency to assist in advocating participation and sharing the results of this effort. Communication is essential and a key element in restoring trust. This effort must be completely transparent and inclusive.”
Finding funding and facilitators who have “no agendas”
When discussing his “Call to the Church” during Wednesday morning’s PMAB executive committee meeting, Rada was questioned about the concept of holding regional gatherings for General Assembly commissioners — before the assembly itself convenes. At this time, he said, we are working on ways to fund the meetings. He also spoke of the need of facilitators for the gatherings that “have no agendas.”
Rada also spoke of the possibility of having a full day or more at General Assembly focused solely on “how to move the denomination forward.”
In his call, Rada said that he firmly believes that “we need to act, and to act now and I believe that the platform afforded the moderator affirms — or even demands — that I extend this call and challenge. We must make immediate decisions which will allow the 222nd Assembly in Portland to be able to deal realistically with many of the issues before us so they can act, not just appoint study commissions or refer this to ongoing committees. From all across the Church our membership has told me we do not have that luxury.”
The Moderator’s call was received with a standing ovation but no plans to implement or realize the call were formally acted upon by the PMAB during its meeting.